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'Just dream the unimaginable' | New Lighthouse CEO talks about the nonprofit's compassionate mission

Most San Antonians know Lighthouse offers services for clients who are blind or visually impaired. But it's also one of the city's largest manufacturing employers.

SAN ANTONIO — Cynthia Watson's new role as CEO for the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind is bringing her career full circle -- and giving her the chance to amplify a mission she's incredibly passionate about.

In this episode of Commerce Street, an Eyewitness News Original podcast, KENS 5 spoke with Watson about her personal and professional journey as well as a staff member who is thriving under the Lighthouse's manufacturing department.

Listen to the full episode below or listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify. (Article continues below).

"The San Antonio Lighthouse for the blind is focused on empowering people who are blind and vision-impaired, and how we carry out that mission is in a lot of ways," Watson said. "Both creating employment for people who are blind through our manufacturing and our service businesses, as well as providing community-based services for all ages dealing with vision loss."

The San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind's manufacturing center employs about 500 people, including around 250 who are vision-impaired, to craft military textiles that are sold on bases. The proceeds go toward sustaining that business and providing other services. 

"We have jobs for people who are blind in every aspect of manufacturing that you can think of, so we have a large textile and apparel manufacturing operation where we make apparel for all branches of the military," Watson said. "We have sewing jobs, we also have all of the jobs related to overhead of running a manufacturing operation, warehouse jobs, finance and accounting jobs, human resources jobs, all the areas, aspects of running a business you can think of. We have people who are blind and vision impaired in all areas of the business, including me; I'm legally blind myself."

Watson says she was diagnosed with a heredity condition causing vision impairment at age nine. It is a progressive condition, so over the years, she had to adjust to vision loss, and after receiving services and mentoring over the years, she developed a dream to do the same for others. She's spent 20 years doing advocacy work, including leading the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, before taking the job in San Antonio.

"It's really a full circle moment for me to have been a client of the San Antonio Lighthouse to now have the opportunity to lead the organization," Watson said. 

The nonprofit utilizes a unique model, with proceeds from manufactured chin straps, army combat shirts with complex pockets and patches, and outer-layer trousers going toward sustaining the firm and serving 10,000 Texans.

Raymond Flores is a machine operator at the manufacturing center, which provided training to help accommodate his level of vision.

"Not being able to work at other positions at other jobs for not being able to read a computer screen, a monitor," Flores said. "Even the machine I'm working on now, the font is real small but I've learned to memorize the buttons I need on the machine. And that has a lot to do with the trainer, the trainer that trained me was very patient and very efficient."

He says the SA Lighthouse has become more than just his workplace- it's a community.

"I've been here for 12 years already and what I've experienced is family, unity, I met my wife here, and I proposed here, in front of all my coworkers and friends and what I've learned is the ability to be independent," Flores said. "I know they're not going to criticize me because of my vision- unity is what it is."

Watson says that sense of community and the work they do goes hand in hand.

"What I consider our social enterprise- so all of our lines of business, including manufacturing and social business- all of that return to working capital is reinvested into growing employment and social enterprise, and providing services," Watson said. 

Clients of San Antonio Lighthouse range from people who are still in the early stages of vision loss to people who may have no light perception and be totally blind, so they meet a variety of needs. For work-age clients, this includes how to find employment, get transportation, and other skillsets, such as how to to use accommodating technology.

"For our employees or staff that are more back office type work, we have technology in order for someone with limited vision or no vision to access the computer to fulfill those job tasks as well," Watson said.

San Antonio Lighthouse also works with local employers to help them provide accommodations where needed. 

To access Lighthouse services, volunteer with the organization, take a tour or buy office supplies, which go toward funding their programs, click here.